Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Fifty-Incher
You may have to test big lakes and open water to find giant muskie salvation.
By Robert Tomes

Sidling up to the bar at one of the legendary fisherman’s hangouts that populate the North Country—from Bemidji, Minnesota to Hayward, Wisconsin, to Clayton, New York—can be a little disheartening.

While sipping a favorite libation you may notice all the dusty, stuffed muskies, angrily staring down from the walls, and a near wallpaper of faded photos featuring giant, dead fish from days gone by. “The good old days” some old-timer might say, adding that in his or her time they were all as long as your leg and as easy to catch as a bluegill.

That barrage could make you wonder if all the modern day pain and effort of catching a muskie on the fly is worth it.

Luckily for us muskie fanatics, this could be your year to stop the questioning and finally catch that fish of your dreams. Thanks to a catch-and-release ethic among all but a few stubborn anglers, and strict bag limits on designated trophy waters, plus improved water quality on many Esox fisheries, right now is a good time to catch your first musky on the fly. It’s also a great time for veteran muskie hunters to find the biggest fish of their lives, those elusive 50-plus inchers.

Evidence: in 2015 Robert Hawkins landed an incredible, 57-inch long, fly rod world record muskie on Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota; and, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists, while electroshocking for walleye on Lake Mille Lacs, turned up a potential new world-record muskie measuring 61 ½ inches long, a fish estimated to weigh between 55 and 75 pounds. The longstanding all-time world record musky, caught by Cal Johnson on Lake Court Oreilles, Wisconsin back in 1949, measured 60 1/4 inches and weighed 67 pounds 8 ounces.

So how and where do you look for a muskie approaching those hefty dimensions? Those of us who hunt Esox masquinongy with a fly already know the “Fish of 10,000 Casts” is never easy. In fact, finding a muskie over 50 inches on any gear takes the game to a whole new level of difficulty. A muskie guide once told me, “Dude, you gotta have a lot of free time and a short term memory to do what you do.”

For starters, upping the odds for a trophy muskie requires a major change of strategy. As tempting as it is, spending all your fishing time on high percentage “action water” (large numbers of smaller fish) while hoping for one truly big fish, is definitely not the way to go. The smart money plays on big water, meaning lakes and rivers where genetics and the forage base—suckers, ciscoes, shad and panfish—support large fish with impressive lengths and girths.

But here’s the catch: it’s one thing to target obvious lake or river structure for muskies—like you’re banging the banks for big browns with a Zoo Cougar, or casting a Dahlberg Diver along the shoreline for smallies—and quite another to cover acres of open water, including fish-magnet spots with weedbeds, points, channel ledges and rock piles, without anything to look at other than a depthfinder and your fishing buddy.

So here’s what you do. You research the water like it’s a military exercise, whittle your muskie “postal route” to a few known big fish addresses, and keep pounding them day and night. You can’t cover water with a fly like you could with gear, but you do have an edge: the fly offers a subtle presentation that most big water fish haven’t seen.

Seasonal changes are also key to where and when to find trophy muskie. Fall is the traditional time for big muskies because they feed heavily at that time in preparation for winter, and they are in the best shape they’ll be in all year having spent spring, summer and early fall putting on weight. But spring is a close second, as mature females (in the muskie world, females are always larger than males) feed aggressively after the rigors of spawning. Look for these big girls close to spawning areas, especially around heat-retaining rocks and emerging weed growth that offer shelter and forage.

Muskie fly choice is another critical element to your success. For sheer casting efficiency and hook-up percentage it’s hard to beat a large streamer. Pick your flavor du jour and, so long as you fish a pattern with confidence, you’ll probably get bit. But getting the attention of a giant muskie is a real challenge in big water. For that reason, if a streamer doesn’t do it, and you are confident that muskie are around, it’s well worth throwing a large, noisy, top water fly to trigger a reactionary bite.

You’ll also want to check the forecast and figure out the best times to make your delivery. Time of day, wind and weather can make all the difference in muskie fishing, so look for major changes—moon phases (new and full are usually best), major fronts (cold or warm, the stronger the better), storms (fish the leading edge, but avoid the lightning) and cloud cover (always makes fish more willing to play). Those situations can trigger fish from followers to eaters.

Where to spend your time on the water casting a big fly for big fish? Here are just a few, big-fish hotspots worthy of your consideration this late spring, summer and fall:

Lake St. Clair, MI and Ontario, Canada

With 430 miles of surface area, Lake St Clair (part of the Great Lakes system connecting Lake Huron to Lake Erie) is definitely big water. It offers that rare combination of high densities and big fish—all that with an average depth of only 11 feet, making it an excellent choice to cast a big fly in relatively shallow water. Massive open water, weedbeds, edges, and river mouths hold fish throughout the season offering a lifetime of fishing opportunity.

Lakes Vermilion and Mille Lacs, MN

As noted, Lake Mille Lacs has already produced numerous record-size muskies including a potential new world record (the one the biologists shocked) that’s still waiting to be caught by some lucky angler. Stocked with faster-growing “Leech Lake strain” muskies, these fisheries have taken off in recent years. In fact, a recent DNR sampling survey revealed that nearly 15-percent of Lake Vermilion muskies are over 50 inches. Longtime muskie guide Bob Benson said, “The combination of great muskie genetics and a tremendous forage base just might make Lake Vermilion one of the best destinations for trophy muskie in the country” Both lakes offer that “Canadian shield” feel with shoreline and open water structure that holds big fish in the spring, summer and fall.

Green Bay, WI

It’s no secret that the Bay of Green Bay and adjoining Fox River are producing some mighty big muskies. In fact, the 54-inch minimum length limit on this water tells all you need to know. Confirmed catches of giant fish each year, plus reports of a massive 64-inch muskie caught and released back in 2013, continue to inspire anglers to try their luck on this heavily fished, Great Lakes waterway. The Fox River might just be your best bet with a fly in the spring as large female muskies return to the bay in search of a meal.

St. Lawrence River, NY and Ontario, Canada

Perhaps the “Granddaddy” of all trophy muskie water, this massive river system continues to produce very large fish, some 55-inches and longer. Although trolling is the most common method of catching muskies on this legendary river, casting a fly can still be effective at certain times of the year. More like fishing an ocean than a river, fly anglers do best while focusing on smaller, shallow water structure—weedbeds, rock piles and shorelines—in the spring and fall when forage is concentrated. “You don’t have to kill yourself casting over a huge area to move a fish” notes famed muskie guide Mike Lazarus. The same goes for fall muskie fishing with a fly when the water begins to cool, “except the fish are even bigger” Lazarus added.

Robert Tomes
Chicagoan and Esox expert Robert Tomes is the author of Muskie on the Fly ( and 25 Best Places/Fly Fishing for Pike.